Nothing but the wind

by Matthew Whittall

Empty sheet

Matthew Whittall

Nothing but the wind


Wind is my favorite elemental sound, perhaps because it embodies so many contradictions. Wind doesn't itself produce a sound, like water, and only creates one in contact with objects that are animated by it, that offer some sort of resistance to it. It's virtually impossible to record directly, only really sounding like itself when captured indirectly, resonating within a space. Rendering wind as a musical idea is a similarly oblique process, in that it's easy to recreate windlike sounds in a piece, but very difficult to communicate the essence of wind. In a sense, wind can only be sensed by peripheral rather than direct observation, inferred rather than invoked. One seeks the feel of wind rather than its literal sound, to paraphrase the Alaskan composer John Luther Adams.

All this is by way of mentioning a hiking trip in Finnish Lapland I took in the summer of 2012. Walking through the high slopes of the northern fells, it struck me that there were few places on Earth where one could go to experience such deep quiet. No animals or birds broke the silence, there were no trees to rustle, no water lapping, and in drier moments, no rain pattering. Nothing but the wind. I took that idea home with me, wanting to write a piece that came close to the essence of this state. A choral piece for women's voices seemed like the perfect vehicle, when the request came. Rather than set a text, I opted for a set of basic phonemes that would allow me greater freedom in designing the form of the piece, and also to avoid the potential of words to signify. The one exception is an aphoristic pair of lines from a poem by Christina Rossetti, which ghost over the texture toward the end. The landscape I envisioned for the piece is very much that of my hiking trip: vast, uncluttered and still. The result is a near-ambient canopy of sound, a kind of inner wind, or perhaps a memory of wind, that one carries away from a momentous experience.

Matthew Whittall


Women's chorus SA (multiple divisi)


Vocal and Choral Works


Florakören, cond. Ulf Långbacka, May 17, 2014, Turku Finland.

Commisioned by / dedications

Nothing but the wind was commissioned by Florakören and their longtime conductor Ulf Långbacka for their 70th anniversary, and is dedicated to them.

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